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Housing, equity, and economic apartheid

Posted by Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker
Ted Schrecker is a clinical scientist at the Élisabeth Bruyère Research Institut
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on Tuesday, 15 January 2013
in CHNET-Works!


CBC News reported on January 9, 2013 that the residents of a high-rise Ottawa Community Housing building in Ottawa had been without hot water since November 30.  The people affected included a 77-year-old man in a wheelchair.  The revelation says a lot about the value of public broadcasting, and local CBC news bureaus in particular.  It also says a lot about the barriers to getting social determinants of health, like adequate housing, on the policy agenda.

It could be worse.  The residents of 415 MacLaren Street could have been stranded on upper floors by non-functioning elevators, which happened in 2010 to residents of a downtown Toronto Community Housing building.  But that’s not the point. 

A bit of background: public housing in Ontario used to be a responsibility shared among three levels of government.  However, the national government and most provincial governments have largely retreated from housing, content to leave it to the private market and to municipal governments that have limited revenue-raising options.  Canada is the only G7 country without a national housing strategy.

This might not be a problem if the market economy provided adequate incomes for all, or if Canadian social policy compensated for the failings of the market.  Neither is the case.  Market incomes at the bottom of the income scale have actually been dropping, and by the middle of the last decade it became clear that social policy had retreated from redistribution, big-time. Housing is only part of the equation.  For example, a hard-hitting report on social assistance in Ontario that recommended immediate increases in benefit rates and allowable labour market earnings for  “the lowest rate category, single adults receiving Ontario Works, as a down payment on adequacy” has vanished from the political landscape without a trace.  This is not only a Canadian problem.  In the United Kingdom, where the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition government is proposing to cap benefit rates while lowering the top income tax rate for the ultra-rich, a spokesman for the Labour Party – the Labour Party – won’t say anything more than that they “support the principle of a benefit cap, but with the important caveat that it should not render people homeless.”

For whatever reason, we tolerate a deepening form of economic apartheid, perhaps at least covertly buying the argument that those on limited incomes are the authors of their own misfortune.  The recent history of plant closings across Canada, briefly discussed in a previous posting and to be covered at greater length in a forthcoming one, is just one piece of evidence among many that undercut this belief.  But then, how often are such self-serving beliefs susceptible to refutation by evidence?

Historian and sociologist Margaret Somers describes the belief system that tolerates such economic apartheid as market fundamentalism – ironically borrowing the term from George Soros, one of the world’s richest men.  There are alternative perspectives.  One views the minimal material prerequisites for a healthy life, including adequate housing, as human rights – a position entrenched in international law by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Canada is a party.  The current UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Housing (be honest, now: did you know there was such a person?) is charismatic Brazilian architect Raquel Rolnik.  Her most recent annual report to the UN General Assembly is an important piece of historical scholarship and a stinging, carefully documented critique of the “financialization” of the housing sector, which has paid off handsomely for financial institutions and for many of the propertied, while marginalizing others.  In calling for “a paradigm shift from housing policies based on the financialization of housing to a human rights-based approach,” she is challenging market fundamentalism and asserting what Somers calls “the right to have rights” independent of the marketplace.

Unless professionals and advocates concerned with social determinants of health can get their heads around that simple message, as it applies to housing and many other policy fields, the future of the health equity agenda has to be reckoned as dim. 

Additional resources:
In an online video of an event at the City University of New York, Ms Rolnik delivers a powerful indictment of the financialization of housing (her presentation starts at about the one-hour mark in the video).  All her annual reports and reports of country visits, like those of her predecessor, are available on the Special Rapporteur’s official web page.

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